Sunday, July 28, 2019. “My River is Better Than Your River” 2 Kings 5:1-14
The message for Sunday, July 28, 2019 “My River is Better Than Your River” by Pastor Erik Goehner, heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00AM Worship service.
My River is Better Than Your River 7/28/19 2Kings 5:1-14
I have to admit that when it comes to rivers, I am a little arrogant. You see, I used to live next to the beautiful Yellowstone River in Montana. Along with the Missouri and Columbia, the Yellowstone is one of the rivers Lewis and Clark traveled on when they made their famous voyage. The Yellowstone is also one of the last remaining rivers in the U.S. that flows in its natural state un-altered by human hands. Its headwaters are found among the pristine peaks surrounding Yellowstone National Park and its tributaries run with water so pure a person could almost drink it straight.
Imagine my dismay, then, when I moved to southern California. What they call a river here may not even have water in it all year long! The rainy season only fills the channels of the Santa Clara for a few months and when water is running down into the ocean it creates a dirty brown strip of bacteria and agricultural run-off up and down the coast. Then there is the LA river—a waterway controlled completely by concrete and dotted with urban litter. When I first moved here I had to say to myself, “You call these rivers?!?”
The main character in our story this morning, from the book of Second Kings is also a little arrogant when it comes to rivers. Naaman is a commander in the army of the king of Aram, which is located in modern-day Syria. The story begins by telling us that Naaman has leprosy. Here he is, a man of strength, a military man who commands many other men. Here he is, a man of position and standing in the kingdom and he has to deal with a disfiguring illness that may also be sapping his energy. Apparently there is no cure in his country. Naaman is desperate enough to listen to the suggestions of his wife’s Israeli slave girl who says there is a prophet in Israel who could cure him of his leprosy. This certainly would have seemed like an unlikely source of a cure according to Naaman. A poor prophet from an insignificant, enemy country who follows a God different from the powerful gods of Aram?!? And news of this prophet comes to him via a slave girl?!? The whole idea must have seemed absurd to Naaman. Yet, to his credit, or as a sign of his desperation, he is willing to follow this lead for a cure.
Naaman is told he must go and wash in the Jordan river seven times to be cured of his disease. Naaman gets very angry after receiving these instructions. His response is, “Are not the Arbana and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?!?” Or in other words “My River is better than your River so why should I stoop so low?”
Naaman’s cynical comment reveals his sense of pride. It also reveals his frustration that things are not going as he would expect they should go. It reveals his frustration that time and again in the story the right protocol is not being followed and he has to continually humble himself in order to make progress for his healing. The waters of the Jordan River, are symbolic of a different religious, political and economic system that Naaman believes is beneath him. These religious, political and economic differences then work to become barriers to Naaman receiving the blessing God has in store for him.
To get more of a sense of what was going on, let me put it into modern terms. Picture this: Acting Secretary of Defense Richard Spencer has an incurable disease. No one doctor in the U.S. can help. He is desperate. Then his wife tells him that their housekeeper who has immigrated from Afghanistan knows of a wise, old Muslim cleric who has healing powers. At the end of his rope, Spencer decides to check it out. Imagine him arriving in a poor, backwater village in rural Afghanistan with all the secret service and black suburbans. Imagine him arriving at the tiny, mud-brick dwelling of the Muslim cleric and waiting for someone to come out to greet him. When someone finally does come out it is the young woman who helps the old man with his cooking and she tells Spencer, “He says go take a bath in the river over there.” –a river which is tainted with human and animal waste, dirt and detergent from clothes being wash, because there is no running water in the small, rural, Afghani village. Picture this scene. Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Almost comical.
Yet this is the image we have in the encounter between Naaman and Elisha. This is the image we have of how God works in the story. Time and again we see God’s way subverting the way Naaman thinks the world runs. Naaman’s perception of political, religious, and economic differences would be a barrier to God’s blessing. His sense of pride and position would prevent him from receiving God’s healing. Thank goodness that God’s Spirit moves in mysterious ways. For one of Naaman’s servants, one of the little, unimportant people, convinces Naaman to go and wash in the Jordan and the commander is healed.
God’s spirit continues to move in mysterious ways. A few years ago I was walking down the long row of a plane I began to realize I had been assigned the dreaded middle seat. Squeezing in and sitting down, I was briefly acknowledged by the other two men sharing the row with me. I don’t remember if my seat-mate near the window initiated the conversation or if I did, but we began talking about his travels and where he was going. He was a teacher from Wisconsin. He was disillusioned with the political state of affairs between the state and his profession and he was taking some time off.
The man next to me in the aisle seat heard us talking about traveling and politics and joined in our conversation. The young teacher then shared that his disillusionment extended to his faith as well. He had grown up in the Lutheran church, but had become disappointed with the way the church had not spoken out on some issues. By this time I had shared that I was a pastor. I wanted to encourage him in his faith while at the same time make sure I was listening and acknowledging his concerns.
At this point in our conversation the man in the aisle seat shared that he was a doctor from Los Angeles and a practicing Muslim. But rather than discourage the young teacher from Christianity or say “my religion is better than your religion,” the doctor simply shared why his faith was important to him in a manner that expressed the importance of spiritual beliefs in general. The doctor was sharing his personal experience of the Muslim faith as a way of encouraging the young teacher in his Christian faith.
All three of us engaged in a meaningful conversation for most of the rest of the trip. The young teacher still had his doubts that he was going to struggle with. As we got off the plane, however, his spirit seemed lighter. I think the man had appreciated my openness to his questions, but I’m sure he listened more intently and stayed in the conversation longer because the Muslim doctor was also sharing his perspective on faith. The doctor’s different background could have been a relational barrier, but instead it seemed to be a blessing to the young man. It seemed that the young man had experienced some healing through the conversation.
In the Gospel this morning we hear about a time when Jesus meets a Syro-Phoenician woman. We get this detail that the woman is a foreigner and a gentile, which means she is not Jewish like Jesus and has a different religious perspective. She asks Jesus for a miraculous healing for her daughter, and his reply is that it is not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs. In other words, his miracles are only for his own chosen people not for a foreigner like the woman.
To this, the woman replies that even the dogs eat the crumbs off the children’s table. It is as if she is challenging Jesus’ view of how far his God’s healing can extend—that surely a God so powerful could have something leftover even for her and her daughter. Jesus is convicted that perhaps his perception of God’s work has been too narrow. The woman’s response has challenged his initial beliefs and expanded them so that he ends up healing her daughter.
Like with Naaman’s encounter with the prophet, Jesus’ encounter with the foreign woman is a challenge to our basic assumptions of what group is better than somebody else. The differences of religion and nationality in the encounters are potential barriers to a blessing moment from God, but when Naaman and Jesus are able to check themselves with humility and be open to a different viewpoint, a healing moment becomes possible.
Do we ever let differences become a barrier to possible blessings in our lives? It is so easy fall into the game of “my country is better than your country, or my faith is better than your faith, and on and on.” But what potential relationships are we missing out on when we let our pride or narrow vision of “what is better” get in the way of listening to another viewpoint? What opportunity for growth or encouragement are we missing out on by not carefully considering another person’s perspective? What might happen if we could lay aside our arrogance or our ignorance and be open with a sense of humility to where the Spirit of God might be leading? It could be that we might learn something new. It could be that a healing moment might occur that we didn’t think was possible. Amen.